Born to Play Ball - Left-Handed Pitchers
Warren Spahn (1942 - 1965)
The Invincible One
"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
- Warren Spahn
Warren Spahn is considered the greatest left handed pitcher in history, with more wins (363) than any other southpaw. Remarkably, he earned his first victory at the ripe old age of 25. Born in Buffalo, New York, Spahn began his major league career in 1942 but was demoted by the legendary Casey Stengel because Spahn wouldn't throw a knockdown pitch at Dodger great PeeWee Reese. It was, according to Stengel, the worst mistake he ever made. Spahn pitched superbly in the minors that year and was tagged for the big leagues, but he then entered the army in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery as well as a Purple Heart during his service in Europe which included action at the Battle of the Bulge and the battle for the bridge at Remagen.
In 1946, Spahn returned to the majors, going 8-5 followed by a record of 21-10 in 1947, the first of 17 seasons of 20 or more victories. Only Christy Mathewson had done better in the National League. Spahn teamed with Johnny Sain to form a great 1-2 punch in the Boston Braves rotation, prompting the famous phrase, "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain."
Spahn's legendary ability was equaled by his endurance. His career average of 252 innings pitched per season coupled with completing a whopping 57% of games he started are statistics that tower over today's Major League leaders. At age 42, Spahn pitched into the 16th inning against the Giants, losing 1-0 when Willie Mays hit a home run on Spahn's 201st pitch. The winning pitcher, Juan Marichal, age 25, went the distance because he didn't want to give into an old man.
Sandy Koufax (1955-1966)
The Man with the Golden Arm
"I knew every pitch he was going to throw and still I couldn't hit him."
- Willie Mays
His career wins (165) are hardly worthy of Hall of Fame status, but from 1961 to 1966, Sandy Koufax showed a brilliance that baseball has rarely seen. He won three Cy Young Awards, each by unanimous votes. He was the first to win the award more than once, and he won them in the day when there was only one Cy Young Award given to all of baseball. He is one of the very few pitchers in history with more career strikeouts than innings pitched. Three times he won the pitching Triple Crown - most wins, strikeouts and lowest earned run average in a season. He holds the record for most shutouts in a season (11) by a lefty (set 47 years earlier by someone named Babe Ruth) and held the record for most no-hitters (4) as well as the season strikeout record until Nolan Ryan broke both marks. He still holds the season record of 323 innings pitched while not hitting a single batter - a tribute to his precise control.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Koufax was a natural athlete. He excelled at basketball, earning a scholarship to the University of Cincinnati and, later, several offers from NBA teams. But he loved baseball. In a tryout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, scout Al Campanis stood in the batter's box while Koufax pitched. Campanis later said, "The hair on my arms rose, and the only other time that happened was the first time I saw the Sistine Chapel." The Dodgers signed him immediately, and Koufax embarked on a career that included four World Series, where his career earned run average was a mere 0.95. His main pitches were a blazing fastball that actually jumped up at the plate and a devastating curveball.
Of note was the 1965 World Series when Koufax, of the Jewish faith, declined to pitch the first game while observing Yom Kippur. He went on to pitch games two, five, and seven (the last two were complete-game shutouts) and earn the World Series MVP award.
Prior to the 1966 season, doctors told Koufax he needed to retire because of the arthritis in his pitching arm, a source of intense pain for the southpaw. Koufax instead pitched brilliantly in the 1966 season, going 323 innings with a 27-9 record and an impressive 1.74 ERA. He retired shortly after the World Series and, five years later, became the youngest person ever elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Post note: Forty-one years after he retired, Koufax was the final player chosen in the inaugural Israel Baseball League: "His selection is a tribute to the esteem with which he is held by everyone in this league."
Robert Moses Grove (1925 - 1941)
"Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf."
- Westbrook Pegler
A fireballing left-hander, Lefty Grove might be one of the least known greats of the game, probably because he was unpopular with fans and his own teammates. He would berate players who made mistakes on the field, and his temper was legendary - once destroying an entire locker room after a game. But as a player, he is certainly one of the all-time greats.
He won 20 or more games in eleven seasons and has the highest winning percentage of all pitchers with 300 or more wins. He consistently led the league in earned run average and strikeouts and was a dominant pitcher in an era of great hitters. His fastball was said to be the equal of Walter Johnson's and Satchel Paige's, and Grove never would throw at a batter's head because he knew he would cripple the person.
Born in the mining hills of Maryland, Grove had a hard childhood and never played baseball until he was 17. Three years later he signed a minor league contract where he dominated and made good money for his team's owner, so much so that the owner wouldn't sell him to the major league teams. But when old friend Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics came knocking, Grove was sold in 1924 for $100,500--$500 more than the price Babe Ruth fetched four years earlier. Grove was 25 when he first pitched in the majors (making his 300 wins all the more impressive) and helped the A's win three pennants and two World Series during the era of Yankee dominance.
For several seasons Grove only had one pitch (a fastball), but as one person said, "That's like saying that when Fred Astaire arrived in Hollywood, all he could do was dance." Grove said he didn't have a curve until his fifth year in the big leagues - he threw so hard that the ball didn't have time to break. When he suffered arm troubles after being sold to the Red Sox, some thought his career was over. Instead, Grove learned how to manage the game, developing other pitches, and led the league in ERA four more times.
Carl Hubbell (1928-1943)
The Meal Ticket
"A fellow doesn't last long on what he has done. He has to keep delivering."
- Carl Hubbell
He pitched his entire career with the New York Giants after being kept in the minor leagues by the Detroit Tigers until he was 25. Born in Carthage, Missouri, Hubbell was sometimes nicknamed "The Carthage Catapult," "King Carl" by the fans, and "Meal Ticket" by his teammates. He helped the Giants win three pennants and the 1933 World Series.
Hubbell's main pitch was a wicked screwball, a pitch he used so often that his left arm became permanently twisted - his left palm faced outward with his arm at his side. Hubbell later said, "The screwball's an unnatural pitch. Nature never intended a man to turn his hand like that throwing rocks at a bear." He won 24 consecutive games between the 1936 and 1937 seasons, a major league record, and was twice named the Most Valuable Player in the National League. He was the first National League player to have his number retired.
His most remarkable feat in a remarkable career came in the 1934 All Star Game. He set a record by striking out five batters in a row: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Fox, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin-each future Hall of Famers and easily five of the most feared hitters in 1934.
When he retired, Hubbell stayed in the game by serving as the director of the Giants' minor league and as the director of player development for 35 years. He oversaw what may have been the most productive farm system in the history of the game with Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda, the Alou brothers, Bill White, and Gaylord Perry just a few of its alumni.
Steve Carlton (1965-1988)
"Hitting him is like trying to drink coffee with a fork."
- Willie Stargell
The first pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards, Steve Carlton was an imposing man at 6'4" and over 200 pounds. He came up in 1965 with the St. Louis Cardinals and became a mainstay in the Redbird rotation until a contract squabble got him traded in 1972 to the Philadelphia Phillies. His best years were to come, but none was better than 1972. He won 27 games for a last place team that won only 59. While recording eight shutouts in 30 complete games, Carlton became only the second National League pitcher ever to ring up over 300 strikeouts. He was the unanimous choice that year for the Cy Young Award.
Following a three year stint with a sore arm, Carlton adjusted a few of his mechanics and once again became be a dominant pitcher. He had a blazing, lively fastball but his "out" pitch was the game's best biting slider, one that made left-handed batters look helpless. Carlton was a strikeout machine, finishing his career behind only Nolan Ryan on the all-time list, but he was the first to break the decades-old mark set by Walter Johnson. Today Carlton is fourth all-time.
For all of his accomplishments and though loved in Philadelphia, Carlton's reputation suffered because of his dealings with the press. When he had his great year in 1972, reporters asked about his training. Lefty talked about his mind training with Far Eastern religions and physical workouts including jogging while buried in a vat of dry ice. When he had arm troubles the following year, those same reporters made fun of his strange workouts, prompting Carlton to never again talk to the press. A Los Angeles reporter wrote in 1981, "The two best pitchers in the National League don't speak English: Fernando Valenzuela [a Spanish-speaking pitcher from Mexico] and Steve Carlton."
Despite his problems with the press, those same baseball writers voted Carlton into the Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility with 96% of the vote, one of the highest ever recorded.
Randy Johnson (1988-2007)
The Big Unit
"You're a big unit!"
- Montreal teammate Tim Raines to Johnson after the two collided in the outfield.
At 6'10", Randy Johnson was the tallest pitcher to ever take the mound when he first pitched in the major leagues. His long arms, legs and hair combined with the game's fastest pitch often intimidated batters, especially when pitched inside to the batter. Beginning his career with the Seattle Mariners, Johnson became that club's first-ever 20 game winner and threw the first no-hitter in franchise history. In 2004, he became the oldest player to ever pitch a perfect game. He has won five Cy Young Awards and is the career strikeout leader for left-handed pitchers and third on the all-time list. And were it not for recurring back problems, "The Big Unit" would have easily been a 300 game winner. As it is, his place at Cooperstown is secured.
Whitey Ford (1950-1967)
The Chairman of the Board
"I don't care what the situation was, how high the stakes were-the bases loaded and the pennant riding on every pitch-it never bothered Whitey. He pitched his game. Cool. Craft. Nerves of steel."
- Mickey Mantle
The mainstay of the Yankee pitching staff, Whitey Ford's career was noted for his big game pitching in World Series play. He holds the career mark for games started, games won, and strikeouts in the fall classic, not so much for individual dominance but because he was the best pitcher on a team that appeared in so many World Series. He is the leader in career wins for New York's Bronx Bombers, a team that has more world championships than any other franchise in professional sports. Not known for overwhelming power, Ford was a pinpoint control pitcher with several pitches. Among all pitchers in history with 300 decisions, he has the highest career winning percentage.